What do I call him? My husband? Arnold? I would if the story were about how we met and married, shared meals for forty-five years, raised a puppy, endured illnesses. But if the story is about an older man preying on a teenager, shouldn't I call him the artist or better still, the art teacher, and all that the word teacher implies?
The art teacher, whose drawings I had admired at his wife’s gallery, was surprised when I wrote my own personal check (I was sixteen) to pay for the life drawing classes. I was flattered to be taken seriously as an artist, to join an adult class with a nude model, a male in this case. I was still a virgin, and though I had grown up with brothers, the adult penis was something I had yet to get a good, uninterrupted look at. I looked that night, but I didn't draw it, though I drew everything else. The art teacher—gray temples, beard, my archetype fantasy of an artist—teased me about the blank circle in the middle of my drawing, but he also praised my innate talent.
The evening class had about twelve others, most retirees. They heard my story during coffee breaks. I planned not to bother finishing high school come May. Artists didn’t need diplomas. I was an emancipated minor. My single mother had three other children to feed. She cried every time I told her my goals. With the money I earned from my part-time marketing research job, I planned to flee the San Fernando Valley and move to New York City to become—no, to be an artist.
I could tell the art teacher was impressed by my ambition. I could tell because he criticized my drawings as well as praised them.
Halfway through the semester, I caught him looking down my blouse and that was more thrilling than the praise. I had been a late developer, and the breasts were new to me. No one wore a bra in those days—1970.
On the last night of class I stayed after the others left to get his advice about my upcoming New York move. He knew artists in the city who might need an assistant. In his private studio, adjacent to the classroom, he drew me to him, and I went willingly. I am purposely using the tired drew me to him because that was how my seventeen-year-old self (a birthday had passed), whose scant sexual knowledge came from Valley of the Dolls, might describe his action, and because to pull someone by physical touch makes him the aggressor.
He was forty-seven, married for twenty-five unfaithful years. He had two children—a daughter my age and a son two years older. His once ascending career as a Social Realist painter had stalled and he now sold commercial serigraphs his younger self would have found appalling.
He kissed me.
I could have screamed. I could have slapped him but what seventeen-year-old is prepared to slap a forty-seven-year-old man she had fantasized about for the previous six months.
I fervently kissed him back. I had imagined his kiss ever since he looked down my blouse. But did I have the agency to consent? The teenage brain is impulsive. There is a mismatch between the limbic system, which is the center of emotion, and the prefrontal lobe, which controls logic and reasoning. California’s age of consent is eighteen. There is a Romeo and Juliet clause in cases of statutory rape that forgives lovers close in age, but, obviously, that didn’t apply here. Did the art teacher’s behavior—the extra attention he gave me in class, the evening he used my arm to demonstrate how the tendons cross over the elbow, the night he looked down my blouse—qualify as 'child grooming', a term that psychologists use to describe a pedophile's recruitment techniques?
He had stopped wearing a T-shirt under his shirt after the weather turned warm, and I remember noticing how his newly exposed middle-aged neck sagged. I found it repulsive, yet I chose to overlook it. Does that constitute consent?
Near the end of the semester, when he and I were alone in a corner stacking drawing benches after class, he whispered (so the retirees wouldn't overhear), “I wish you were older.” I had always wished I was older. I had wanted to be an adult ever since I was a child. “I'm old enough,” I replied.
Was that consent?
I've written about this kiss before, twenty-five years ago, in a memoir about my youth, Half a Life. I was in my mid-forties when I finished the memoir, the same age Arnold was that night. The memoir is as close as I have to a transcript:
On my last night of art class, I dawdled in the hall until the other students were finished. I heeled the wall and watched them file out. As soon as they were gone, I slipped back into the classroom and shut the door behind me. Arnold was leaning against a window frame, arms folded, eyes shut, yawning. This time I approached him without a hint of coyness, without the spark of a blush.
I unbuttoned the top three buttons of my peasant blouse, crossed the ink-splattered floor, and kissed him.
He kissed me back, then stopped himself.
I had no precedent to go on except Valley of the Dolls and Peyton Place. I asked him if he would sleep with me.
He looked stunned.
I mustered all my nerve and asked again.
“Maybe we should talk,” he said.
I shook my head no.
“Sweetheart, I can’t sleep with you. I’d like to, but I can't.”
“I don't see why not,” I said. I honestly didn’t.
“For one thing, I could be arrested.” He smiled, trying to make light of things.
I had no sense of humor. “I won’t tell anyone,” I promised.
He put his hand on my cheek. He didn’t caress me; he simply pressed his hand against my skin. “It wouldn't be fair to you.”
The gesture felt so loving that I began to cry.
“Shhh,” he said. He tried to take me around, but I kept my face averted. As much as I wanted to be held, I was embarrassed to stain his shirt with my leaky mascara.
“I bet you think I’m a big jerk,” I said.
“It’s the last thing I think.”
“I’ve made such a fool of myself.”
“No you haven’t.”
“Do you still like me?”
He cupped my head in his hands. I could tell he was choosing his words with great caution. “Jill, if you were older, I --”
“I’m old enough,” I said flatly.
I am sure Arnold said those words (maybe not verbatim but close enough) before he sent me home an intact virgin that night, as certain as I am that it was he who had been the instigator. When I wrote the scene (note that I use the term scene not memory: scenes in a memoir are no more accurate than reenactments on Forensic Files), Arnold and I had been living together for twenty-seven years. If I had to rank our marriage at that juncture, I would have ticked the box very satisfied. The story of how a couple meets, who kisses whom first, who declares their love first, is as instrumental to a couple’s mythology as a creation myth is to a society’s ideology. The ownership of those memories is wrestled back and forth between the parties (the bickering and talking over and cutting in that couples resort to when recounting their beginnings) until one of the parties dies.
Who kissed whom first? If Arnold kissed me first, should I refer to him in the language of today—sexual offender, transgressor, abuser of power? Or do I refer to him in the language of the late nineties, when my forty-five-year-old self-wrote the scene. The president at that time was Clinton and the blue dress was in the news. Men who preyed on younger women were called letches, cradle-robbers, dogs. Or do I refer to him in the language of 1970, at the apex of the sexual revolution, when the kiss took place—Casanova, silver fox. And how do I refer to myself? In today’s parlance—victim, survivor? The words are used interchangeably but have very different connotations. Calling myself a victim would imply that I had been helpless, whereas calling myself a survivor would suggest I had empowerment. Or do I employ the language used to describe Monica Lewinsky—bimbo, vixen. Or do I talk about myself in the lingo of the sexual revolution? In that case, I was the coolest, bitch'nest chick on the block because I kissed my art teacher.
While writing a memoir, the time it takes to recreate a moment from your past is usually longer than the time it took to live the actual moment. The memory of writing the memoir slowly accumulates until it usurps the events you are trying to capture. It took me days to compose the scene. The kiss itself may have only lasted seconds. How am I so sure who kissed whom first, who was the transgressor and who the transgressed? Because I daydreamed about Arnold pulling me to him and kissing me for weeks, months afterward, longer than it took to write the scene. I know who kissed whom first.
There is another omission in the text. I promised Arnold that I would not tell anyone about the kiss, but in fact I did. I told my mother as soon as I got home that night. I was two hours late. She had just gotten off the phone with Arnold’s wife to ask if there had been an end of the year party. His wife had told my mother that she didn't know, her husband hadn’t come home yet. I was furious with my mother for involving his wife. I told her that I was in love with him, that there was nothing she could say to stop me from seeing him again. She reminded me that he had a wife. I reminded her that she was seeing a married man, ten years younger than she, and (coincidentally) also named Arnold.
That scene isn't in the memoir. It would have been a compelling scene. My mother and I shared a bed because I had sold mine in order to turn my bedroom into an art studio. My father, whose side of the bed I occupied, had moved out—been thrown out—the year before. What writer wouldn't employ the irony of sleeping in your absent father's bed after trying to seduce your father substitute?
New York didn’t work out as I had hoped—instead of the Greenwich Village garret I had envisioned for myself, I ended up in a squat on Avenue D. Instead of painting nude models at the Art Student’s League, I posed naked for “photographers” at a sex parlor called Escapades. But I was no longer a virgin. I gave that job to a boy my own age.
I lasted four months before taking a Greyhound bus back to LA. I returned defeated and ground down by the reality that just because I wanted to be an artist really, really badly, it didn’t mean I would become one. All I had left of my aspirations was the memory of that kiss. I borrowed my mother’s car and went to see Arnold. I didn’t call first.
This is how I describe the reunion in my memoir:
Arnold’s studio door was unlocked. I gave it a sham knock, a brush of knuckles, then stepped inside. He lay on his cot, asleep in a puddle of lamplight. His heavy square eyeglasses, pushed back on his forehead, doubled the lamp's glowing filament in miniature, like two magnifying glasses collapsing the sun to start pinpoints of fire.
I shut the door behind me and slipped the stubborn bolt into its rusty lock. Then I crossed the studio and stood over him. A book lay open on his chest; his arm dangled over the cot. A faint dusting of black hair silhouetted his forearm. He stirred, squinted up at me, and started to speak. I hushed him, touching his dry lips with fingertips. Then I peeled off my ribbed T-shirt, lingered for a wooden moment in full lamplight, and lay down beside him. It wasn’t hard to seduce him. The suggestions had already been implanted. My previous attempt, clumsy as it had been, must have tugged on his imagination until it unleashed tendrils of fantasies.
This scene is true in the sense that it has remained a consistent memory over the years. I’m fairly certain that it was I who seduced him that afternoon. But would I have if he had not kissed me first? Am I as delusional as Humbert Humbert when he narrates (Lolita is twelve at the time), it was she who seduced me.
In both scenes from the memoir, Arnold is passive, either lost in thought or asleep when I appear like a nymph in the forest. There is empowerment in remembering oneself as the sexual aggressor, especially after modeling at Escapades. But I don’t believe that was my motivation.
When I wrote this, was I protecting Arnold? The statute of limitations had long ago passed.
Was I protecting my marriage? We had just celebrated our twenty-seventh anniversary.
I didn’t ask then, but I have to ask now that Arnold is no longer here to sway or dispute me. Was my marriage—the half century of intimacy, the shifting power, the artistic collaborations, the sex, the shared meals, the friends, the travels, the illnesses, the money-worries, the houses, the dogs—fruit from the poisonous tree?